By Jenny Golding
As the sun bends towards the horizon on an early fall evening in the Lower Geyser Basin, you pull in to the parking lot at Great Fountain Geyser. Although it seems like nothing is going on, you step out and have a look. Other cars slowly drive by, see what looks like a quiet geyser, and keep going. But you notice a steady stream of water flowing continuously from the center vent and out over the concentric sinter terraces. This tells you that the eruption is coming soon, so you settle in to watch. Long after everyone else has given up, you are rewarded by an extraordinary spray of steam and water 100–200 feet into the air, illuminated by the gold and orange of the setting sun.
Many visitors to Yellowstone start and end their geyser gazing at Old Faithful. They’ll see the geyser, do some shopping, and move on to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, or wildlife watching in Hayden Valley. Only a fraction will take the time to walk through the Upper Geyser Basin, many of those unknowingly passing by an amazing array of geysers. If you know what you’re looking for, there’s a whole new level of geyser activity waiting for you.
“The first step,” says Jake Young, founder of GeyserTimes.org—a crowd-sourced, open-platform database of geyser eruptions—“is to see all the geysers that the park service predicts.” That includes Old Faithful, Castle, Grand, Daisy, and Riverside in the Upper Geyser Basin, and Great Fountain in the Lower Geyser Basin. To do it right, Young recommends spending an entire day at Old Faithful. Start by jotting down the predictions in the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center, or check them online at GeyserTimes.org, or the National Park Service Yellowstone Geysers app. Set a goal of seeing at least three geysers besides Old Faithful.
When you spend a whole day in the geyser basin, a surprising thing happens. Not only do you see geysers, but you become attuned to the basin’s rhythms, from the awe-inspiring eruption of Grand or Riverside, or the sizzling and murmurings of an unnamed fumarole, to a dragonfly caught in the microbial mats of a hot spring—a fossil in the making. Soon the more subtle bubbling and steaming of thousands of thermal features seeps into your soul. You’re hooked!
To rise to the next level of geyser gazing, Young recommends trying to see some of the features that the NPS doesn’t officially forecast, but which can be somewhat predictable. Geysers such as Beehive, Lion, and Fountain (at Fountain Paint Pots) are often predictable geysers, but can change behavior suddenly, making it hard to predict for the general public. But by studying previous eruptions on GeyserTimes.org, or learning the individual quirks and signs from the Geyser Observation and Study Association, (geyserstudy.org), or from the Geysers of Yellowstone book by T. Scott Bryan, you can occasionally predict some of these other geysers and add them to your list of experiences.
It’s a remarkable privilege to be able to travel through these very fragile and very dangerous areas. “The NPS puts a lot of effort to make sure visitors can enjoy the thermal features safely,” says park geologist Jeff Hungerford. “You can help us protect them for generations to come by staying on designated trails and boardwalks.”
If you’re ready to get a head start geyser gazing before your next visit, you can see several geysers from the Old Faithful live streaming webcam.